Charged with falsifying data to close a $175 billion deal, the young founder is the latest 30-Under-30 winner to be arrested for financial crimes, raising questions about the privilege underpinning American entrepreneurship
According to Forbes 30-Under-30 winner Charlie Javice, the biggest challenge for her startup, Frank, was scale—and the company, which aimed to simplify the process of student financial aid, needed some financial backing of its own. So, like a slew of other young founders before her, she decided to make it up, paying a data science professor to falsify the accounts of some four million users. These inflated numbers enabled her to close a deal with J.P. Morgan, which bought Frank for $175 million dollars.
“It’s not every day that an entrepreneur gets her fairytale new beginning,” Javice wrote on LinkedIn after the acquisition, which could have left her with over $45 million of her own, had the banking giant not noticed something fishy about the manipulated data. Two years later, she’s facing over a hundred years behind bars if convicted for her financial crimes.
Javice is only the latest in a series of 30-Under-30 winners to be hailed as a cultural luminary, and later arrested for fraud—raising questions about the status of American entrepreneurship, and whether we should be putting ambitious twenty-somethings up on a pedestal in the first place. Among the other notables are Sam Bankman-Friend and his collaborator, Caroline Ellison, now recognized as a key figure in the implosion of FTX. In her application for the Forbes list in 2022, Ellison stated that she would advise her younger self to “be less risk-averse and believe in herself more.” But that may not have been the best idea, because by December of that year, she had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“Javice is only the latest in a series of 30-Under-30 winners to be hailed as a cultural luminary, and later arrested for fraud—raising questions about the status of American entrepreneurship, and whether we should be putting ambitious twentysomethings up on a pedestal.”
Ellison was the CEO of Alameda Research, a trading firm launched by Bankman-Fried, who made the Forbes 400 just a few months shy of his 30th birthday. At the time, he was celebrated as the new face of crypto: a young entrepreneur who made tons of money, with the goal of giving it all away. But though he threw around the phrase “effective altruism,” Bankman-Fried had only parted with about 0.1 percent of his $26 billion fortune—placing him among the least charitable members of the Forbes 400.
In wake of the FTX’s collapse, Bankman-Fried faces federal fraud and bribery charges—and the massive fallout had the public and press alike scrambling for information on both him and Ellison. And they delivered: As uncovered by Coindesk, the pair had not only been romantically involved, but were among the 10-person crew of employees that lived together and dated one another in the Bahamas, even sharing the same therapist. Ellison’s blog also offers up a litany of incriminating details: from her ideal relationship model (an ‘imperial Chinese harem,’ involving an established hierarchy and “vicious power struggles” to attain the top rank) to her promotion of race science and the fact that, in her late-20s, she is still really into Harry Potter.
It’s hard to deny that these anecdotes seem engineered to dominate the modern news cycle. Scamming has long held a place in the cultural zeitgeist, in part because the collapse of massive business ventures gives the public permission to take a voyeuristic look at fraudsters’ messy practices, in realms both professional and personal. But while our appetite for salacious details might seem insatiable, the frenzy around cultural luminaries-turned-laughingstocks isn’t just a case of collective schadenfreude. Rather, it reflects a generational sentiment that the system isn’t fair, and that the people who succeed within it often don’t do so on their own merit. In this case, scam stories make intuitive sense: As white, upper-middle-class entrepreneurs, the recent slew of Forbes fraudsters are well-positioned to exploit this system, given that the odds are already stacked in their favor. Scamming is, after all, a crime of opportunity—and as the infamous faux heiress Anna Delvey once put it, “It’s not about if I believe it or not, it all has to do with confidence.”
“As white, upper-middle-class entrepreneurs, the recent slew of Forbes fraudsters are well-positioned to exploit this system, given that the odds are already stacked in their favor. Scamming is, after all, a crime of opportunity.”
Delvey herself was charged with defrauding New York’s wealthy elite, and served four years in prison for financial crimes—but if you ask her, she didn’t set out to scam anyone. Sure, she falsified some bank records and committed wire fraud, but that’s because she was a young woman with a dream—and that dream happened to be opening her own $40 million private art club in New York City. Her “fake it till you make it” approach, she says, was informed by the entrepreneurial climate of the time; plus, she was still growing up. “I’m a different person now,” Delvey claims. “I think everybody between the ages of 20 and 30 goes through such a big change.”
It’s been said that young people will save the world—and perhaps the recent slew of Forbes fraudsters believed the lies they were telling themselves, viewing their financial crimes as road bumps on the path to success. They certainly played into this idea, purporting to revolutionize the industries of health and finance not for themselves, but for the collective benefit of others—which would, of course, make them rich in the process. Ironically enough, Delvey, who set out on a far more self-serving mission, is among the few grifters now hailed as a lovable antihero, perhaps because she’s more honest about her deception: “My motive was never money,” she told the New York Times in 2019, dressed in a khaki jail jumpsuit and Céline glasses. “I was power-hungry.”
Delvey’s status as a scamming icon is bolstered by the fact that, unlike Holmes—whose father was the vice president of Enron—she didn’t come from wealth. But while her story could be seen as a rags-to-riches tale, she wasn’t angling to become a modern-day Robin Hood; Delvey simply believed in herself a bit too much, and didn’t see the problem when everyone else did, too. Javice, it seems, was afflicted with a similar degree of overconfidence; she allegedly went to one of Frank’s employees first, with the request that he falsify her company’s data. When the employee pushed back about the legality of the manipulation, Javice assured him that “no one would end up in an orange jumpsuit over it.” But, as anyone in their 20s knows, life comes at you fast: You can be 30-Under-30 one day, 30-Under-Arrest the next.